If you want to get a group of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses (esp. second or third generation Witnesses) really riled up, ask them about the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s stance on education and how that stance has impacted their lives.
For so many of us, recalling the organization’s edicts about education triggers complicated, painful memories of scholarships lost and dreams deferred. Memories of years spent window washing and floor cleaning instead of enjoying internships and graduations.
What is the official Governing Body stance about whether Jehovah’s Witnesses can attend college?
Side note - For my fellow POMOS, how weird is it that we let 8 men who never paid a single bill for us set parameters for where we could attend school and work?
It is most unlikely that you will unearth any Watchtower articles stating that Jehovah’s Witnesses who choose to get a college education will be instantly excommunicated. Rarely does Witness leadership explicitly tell members that a particular action is verboten. Remember, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is first and foremost a multimillion dollar corporation masquerading as a religion. The corporation has a legal team that advises it about maintaining plausible deniability and limiting liability.
However, even a cursory review establishes that the Governing Body strongly discourages education beyond high school and/or technical or vocational training. After the May 22, 1969 Awake warned of the dangers on college campuses including but not limited to Negro students demanding more courses on black history (yes, they actually went there) and students who were choosing to attend classes about lovemaking, Witness youths were advised:
“If you are in high school and thinking about a college education, it means at least four, perhaps even six or eight more years to graduate into a specialized career. But where will this system of things be by that time? It will be well on the way toward its finish, if not actually gone!”
One might think that some 40 years after those 1969 teens graduated high school and after they had spent decades in low-paying jobs, as they stared down dismal retirements sans any hint of Armageddon, they would insist that their children and grandchildren needed to get a good education, start meaningful careers, and grow a 401k. But the Governing Body told another generation, Nope! In the July 2011 Kingdom Ministry parents were advised to prepare their children to withstand the pressure they will receive to pursue higher education, date, and use alcohol or drugs. Evidently, registering for Intro to Chemistry is analogous to shooting heroin.
Similarly, the Governing Body doubled down in the June 15, 2012 Watchtower
“School counselors sincerely believe that it is in your best interests to pursue higher education and to plan for a secular career. Yet, their confidence lies in a social and financial system that has no lasting future.”
Just in case parents were thinking of bending the rules, the repercussions were made even more clear in a March 12, 2012 letter to elders warning them that they could lose their positions in the congregation if their children attended college. Again, to non-Witness readers, losing what amounts to an unpaid part-time job of confessor, counselor, and minister in your local congregation is devastating to the typical high-school educated Witness male who has rarely yielded that type of authority before.
Devout Witnesses heard and obeyed. A 2014 study identified that less than 12% of JW have college degrees. Witnesses’ education levels lag behind nearly all other major religions including Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, etc.
When I graduated high school in the late 1980s I wanted desperately to study literature and law, history and sociology. My parents (who were college educated Before they became Witnesses) made it quite clear that they would not pay for me to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) required for college admission. Furthermore, they would not give me their tax information to apply for financial aid, and if I continued to follow such “worldly” pursuits, I would be cut off from all family support. So I took crappy retail jobs, day care center shifts, and read voraciously to satisfy my desire for learning – when I wasn’t making my quota of hours knocking on doors of people who did not want me there to espouse “truth” that I was not sure that I believed.
That is why learning about the Governing Body’s hypocrisy and double standards about college education was a gut punch for me. I was shocked to learn how they heavily recruited the few doctors and lawyers in the organization and often offered said professionals cushy positions with perks at the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters if they provided free health care or if they agreed to represent the corporation’s legal interests. Even more surprising was the news that Witness insiders and/or their children had college expenses paid for by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
While I had been hawking those big-ass Revelation Climax books in Georgia heat and humidity, my “voluntary donations” had been used to educate the privileged few, allowing them to access the education that I had been denied? It also did not help that those Bethel approved scholarships were awarded primarily if not exclusively to white men. No women or BIPOC need apply. See the Judah Ben Schroeder story.
If it seems counterintuitive for a religion to actively discourage its members from pursuing education that they would need to become upwardly mobile, it really isn’t. Scientific methodology, critical analysis, and rigorous debate, skills taught at any decent liberal arts college, are antithetical to a Witness worldview. Perhaps Fredrick Douglass said it better when he stated, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.” Patriarchal but true, Mr. Douglass.
· An educated Witness would fact check and reject any misquotes or misrepresentations of scientific and historical sources in Watchtower publications.
· An educated Witness would not simply accept the pivotal date of 607 B.C.E without examining the mountain of evidence that points to alternative dates.
· An educated Witness would delve into the impact of white supremacy and misogyny in the 19th century Millerite movement and in the eschatological religions that resulted from it including Charles Taze Russell’s Bible Students.
In short, an educated Witness is unlikely to remain a Witness very long.